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Element of Surprise

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With a heavy foot, Mark steps into the glade of the forest he inhabits. Momentarily, it is illuminated by the sun poking out from the barrage of clouds littering the sky. Mark has been foraging all morning. Such an activity is perfect for a quiet Sunday and his pantry is getting rather empty. The grassy clearing greets him. Sadly, there is no excessively large tree stump in the center like a throne to this beautiful forest. He casts an eye over the area and his gaze lands upon a body on the western side of the glade. Mark walks up to it and nods—it’s dead, alright. The corpse looks to be human too; no creature-like features adorn the dead man’s visage.

After his short inspection, Mark smiles excitedly. It isn’t everyday that you find human flesh—and for the taking too! He pulls out a small hatchet from one of the loops of his belt that he wears. He tiptoes around the corpse to face one of the its arms. Mark begins to chop off the hand—two, three, four hits later and it comes off cleanly. Triumphantly, he holds the limb closer to his face. This body may be a day old, but it still smells delicious. Human flesh is a treat for elves since most do not actively hunt down humans to eat. To stumble upon a dead human in his forest… What luck! Mark’s mouth is watering. He opens his mouth to take a bite when he hears the sound of a twig snapping. Hurriedly, he pivots on his feet to face the source of the sound as he hides his hands behind his back—hatchet in one and limb in the other.

A man steps into the glade much like Mark had earlier. The stranger is wearing a shirt whose colour reminds Mark of a beautiful field of poppies, his trousers are held to his waist by a piece of string and his hair is dishevelled and as black as ink. His gaze travels down to the dead body and he gasps.

“Is-is he alright?” asks the stranger. He tries to peer over the blades of grass, but does not come any closer.

With the man’s attention elsewhere, Mark shoves the cut-off hand into his linen satchel. “I found him like this,” he replies, shrugging.

“What should we do with him?” His disgust is as clear as day—maybe this is the man’s first dead body? “The town isn’t very far. He should get a proper burial, right?”

“It seems easier to leave him here and let the creatures that roam this forest feast,” says Mark. He gets a hand, the wolves who live in these woods get to eat whatever their teeth can latch onto and the bugs get to nibble on what’s left. The other man still seems on the fence; stubborn humans who always stick to their silly customs. “Let nature run it’s course, friend.”

“I guess you’ve got a point,” replies the man. Finally, he looks up to Mark and frowns. “I’ve never seen you before. And I know everyone who lives here,” his tone is accusatory.

Mark scoffs. “Well, you missed one! I live in the area and have for a long time,” the venom in his words is short-lived, better to be friend than foe, right? “I’m Mark, nice to meet you. And you are?” he asks this with a toothy smile, exposing his sharp teeth to the human. This makes him flinch, but Mark pushes his free hand toward the man for a handshake, wiggling his eyebrows expectantly.

“Xiaojun. You can call me Xiaojun.” He does not shake Mark’s hand, but, at the very least, he is capable of holding his gaze. That’s a start, thinks Mark.

“Perfect!” He shuffles from one foot to the other. He needs to get out of Xiaojun’s sight, all he can think about is the hand weighing down his satchel.

Xiaojun coughs into his fist. “Well, I don’t want to stay near that body for too long… See you around, Mark,” and he walks back in the same direction he had come from.

Now that Mark is alone again, he drops his hatchet onto the ground and digs in his bag. Seconds later, he retrieves the limb and bites into the palm. At that exact moment, Xiaojun comes back. He seems to be looking for something. The other man lifts his eyes up to look at Mark. He smiles at the human, even if he has been caught doing what no human would ever do. The man’s reaction is to gulp and flee.

Mark puts his treat away. This Xiaojun… He seems nice enough, treating Mark with some semblance of respect; something most humans would not do once they notice his elven attributes. He steps around the corpse with his eyes on the green grass, looking for whatever it is that Xiaojun had lost. If he sees the human again, he will give it back to him.

Ah-ha! A small sack made of linen rests near where Xiaojun once stood. Mark picks it up. The thing looks capable of holding lots of goodies. Maybe the human is a forager too? He would have to ask, thinks Mark.

Other than the corpse, the clearing holds nothing good for Mark to eat. And so, the elf walks back into the forest, determined to find more provisions.

 

*

 

Birds hidden in the trees chirp and Mark whistles back at them. The sun shines brightly in the clear, blue sky. The elf’s leather boots shuffle against grass, on the outskirts of his beloved forest. Mark is no stranger to life outside of the woods. At night, he might pick fresh produce off of the villager’s garden and he has crossed paths with men who fish at the river in the past. But still… he feels like an outsider looking in on a little world he cannot join. Sometimes he wishes he wasn’t so… elven. Then, he could live in their tight-knit community with friends and family. But it’s no use going down this road. Annoyed at himself, Mark kicks a lump of dirt in his path. With his mood souring, his steps lose their pep.

He looks around, hoping that something will catch his attention and allow him to tuck away gloomy thoughts for a later date. A creek runs in the same direction as Mark. If he walks down a little further, the narrow stream will expand into a body of water large enough to fish in. His eyes follow the water and find a man; one he recognizes—Xiaojun.

All of Mark’s worries are washed away and a brand-new idea replaces them. The other man looks to be deep in thought with a fishing rod in his hand. It happens to humans often and Mark can’t blame them; waiting for a bite seems mind-numbingly boring. But an inattentive Xiaojun is exactly what he needs.

He sneaks up to Xiaojun with an evil smile etched upon his features. Careful to not make a sound, Mark plants himself behind the other man and slaps his two hands on his shoulders, making him yelp loudly. He barely holds onto his rod from the shock and Mark cackles at the sight.

Xiaojun’s free hand clutches at his heart; hand splayed across his red shirt. He holds that position as he catches his breath. And Mark is proud; you don’t catch him by surprise without paying the price. The human slowly turns around, boots scrunching against the gravely riverbank. When he sees who scared him to death, he frowns. “The fish… You scared them off,” he states, bewildered.

But Mark doesn’t feel any remorse. He doubts that Xiaojun had a bite; the man had been observing the water for at least a minute without reeling in his supposed catch. “Don’t worry about it,” he waves off the river next to them nonchalantly. “How have you been faring, Xiaojun?” Mark initiates small talk with too much enthusiasm, but he is excited to see the other man again. And! He hasn’t run away yet, so perhaps, the two can spend some time together.

“Everything is good here, how about you?” drones on Xiaojun, clearly on autopilot. Once again, he faces away from Mark, casting his fishing pole back into the water.

Mark backs away to give him some space. “Very good, I’m glad we got to meet again.” Suddenly, he remembers the little sack Xiaojun dropped some days ago. He searches his satchel and retrieves it. “So, I can give you back this.” Pinching the item between his index and his thumb, he waves it near the other man’s face.

Xiaojun stares at it and when he finally understands what Mark is holding, he gasps. “You found it?” Grabbing it, he smiles at Mark and it’s a genuine one.

“I kept it safe for you,” he replies. Mark observes the sack in Xiaojun’s fist. “I see that you fish, but… Do you forage too?” He shifts his gaze to the man’s face, hopeful for a ‘yes’. It would mean the world to Mark if he could have someone else to talk to about this kind of stuff.

“I just search for berries. Pa told me to not touch the mushrooms though, poisonous,” answers Xiaojun. His father is right, thinks Mark.

“I can teach you, if you want,” fearful of Xiaojun’s rejection, Mark casts his eyes back to the river. “It’s fed me for years and I’m still in one piece, so…” A sudden movement catches his attention.

He takes a large step toward the river and crouches down. His senses are now on high alert, awaiting the perfect moment to catch—Mark thrusts his arm in the freezing water and gets a hold of a fish. He pulls his arm out and lifts the creature in the air. “Whew, still got it!” exclaims Mark. He turns around to Xiaojun, who’s looking back at him with shock and astonishment. “Where do you store what you’ve caught?” he asks the human.

Xiaojun stares at the wriggling fish in Mark’s hand for a moment. “Basket. To my right. There is a basket.” His words are stilted, but Mark opts to ignore Xiaojun’s feelings and heads toward said basket.

He drops it in and watches the creature flop one last time. “Now, you can’t complain that I made you lose your bite, okay?” says Mark.

“I guess… Thank you.”

Satisfied, Mark approaches the river once more. They spend their afternoon like this; enjoying the warm weather and the quietude of fishing. But the silence between them does not feel awkward—if you ask Mark. It seems that the Xiaojun isn’t afraid of Mark’s elven nature and he’s had plenty of chances to reject his attempts at friendship.

Once the sun begins to set, Xiaojun calls out for Mark. “Ma wanted me back before dark, so…” They look down at the basket—it’s quite a good haul. “Um, do you remember how many fish you caught?” His voice is small, but Mark doesn’t understand why.

The elf shrugs, “Why don’t we split?”

“Oh no! I couldn’t take that many fish away from you,” says Xiaojun, panicked.

Mark puts a hand on Xiaojun’s shoulder, making the other man stumble a bit. “You’ve got a mother and a father, right? Maybe some siblings? You need these a lot more than I do… I live on my own, after all,” he explains to a perplexed Xiaojun.

Then, Mark begins to transfer some of what they have caught into his satchel, leaving out the bigger fish to Xiaojun. Something about the human makes Mark want to give him the world. He shakes his head, discarding the thought, he’s probably just lonely.

Once everything is evenly split, Mark grabs the handles of the basket, ready to carry it to Xiaojun’s home. The other man stops him with the palm of his hand, “What are you doing?”

“Helping you out. In which direction is your house, Xiaojun?” replies Mark, voice monotonous.

Xiaojun, not taking any of Mark’s generosity, grabs the handles of the basket too. He pulls it toward himself, frowning, “Let me handle this, then.”

“But—” Determination is swirling in the other man’s eyes, making Mark shut his trap. He lets go and watches Xiaojun struggle with the basket momentarily before he stabilizes himself.

Mark looks around him for anything the two men might have missed—the human’s fishing rod is lying on the ground. He bends down to pick it up and Xiaojun does not complain, so Mark signals for him to lead the way.

The walk back is peaceful and the orange hues of the sunset light up their way. Suddenly, Mark’s stomach rumbles audibly, surprising them both. With his free hand, he digs in his satchel and pulls out a small fish by its tail. From the corner of his eye, he notices Xiaojun staring at him. Smirking, Mark lifts the fish above his open mouth and lets it go. He chews his snack loudly; squishy noises mixing in with the snapping of fish bones. Finally, he swallows, looking back at the human.

Xiaojun gawks at Mark, mouth agape. The sight makes him snort. He pushes Xiaojun’s chin to close it, “Don’t keep it open like that. What if you swallow a fly?”

“Why’d you eat it raw? That’s not safe!” he exclaims.

“I haven’t eaten since this morning! You would want me to starve when perfectly good food is stored in my bag?” he asks, pretending to not understand the other man’s worries.

“Well, I—” Xiaojun’s eyes glance at the side of Mark’s face; he presumes the other man remarked the elf’s ears, “Right. You’re not… human…”

“It’s nice of you to worry about my well-being, Xiaojun,” he says, beaming at him. They only met four days ago, but Mark really enjoys being around the human. And Xiaojun’s concern squashes his fear of rejection momentarily. The other man offers him a small, shy smile.

They stop in front of a wooden bridge; one of the many entrances to the village. Mark balances the fishing rod on top of the basket. Hopefully, it won’t fall; Mark has a feeling that Xiaojun wouldn’t be too pleased about it.

“You won’t walk me back to my house?” asks Xiaojun.

Mark stares off into the distance, “I don’t feel too welcomed here… personally.”

Xiaojun pouts, “If that’s what you want…”

Mark wraps an arm around his new friend, almost making the rod crash onto the dirt road. “We’ll see each other again. Now, enjoy those”—he pushes his chin out in the basket’s direction—“with your family, okay?”

The human pulls himself out of Mark’s grasp and turns to face him, looking cheerful again. “I will. Good night, Mark.” Xiaojun takes two steps on the bridge before calling out to the elf, “Oh! About the foraging… Can I still take you up on your offer?”

Mark grins from ear to ear, nodding vehemently. “Of course! I’ll teach you everything I know.”

The human smiles back at him and the two men part ways.